Unintended consequences of innocent curiosity
stephanie jo kent
2

You ask 5 questions in your comment:

  1. “ The thing I wonder is, even in the benign case, what does knowing a person’s ancestry ‘tell’ the person asking?” — I would point you to the idea that any conversation relies entirely on a pool of shared knowledge between the interlocutors, any contributions to which must be agreed upon both parties, usually through active listening skills like nodding, or saying ‘uh-huh’, etc. Knowing a person’s cultural background provides communicative heuristics that will afford the chance of the shared knowledge pool increasing more quickly and/or efficiently. This is by no means guaranteed, however.

2. “ It means we need another level of awareness, a meta-level, and at least some sense of proportion I guess?” — Ha! Yeah…ü

3.“ How much do we really learn from such questions?” — I’m not at all sure, but I notice that, for example, ‘Where are you from?’ is almost ubiquitous in Elementary-level English-as-a-foreign/second-language (EFL/ESL) textbooks as a key target phrase. This would seem to indicate that it is generally conceived of as a non-malign phrase.

4.“ what’s the follow-up question that takes us to a good/better place?” — *A* (not ‘the’ which I find a little…limiting, I guess?) follow up question, surely? It could be any number of things. I maintain on any given day it IS any number of things. Some cliched, some novel, some unusual, all good.

5. “ Or, maybe better, what’s the lead-up that enables such a question to take us where we want to go?” — Well, one way would be to somewhat police your own thinking. An example would be where one raises a data point, say about the content of EFL/ESL textbooks, and then notices that, in fact, there are TWO collocations used: ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Where do you come from?’. And as this is a feature of great value to textbook-writers, for reasons that are almost certainly duller than watching dry paint to most people, you still would expect to find these sentences over-represented in that corpus, as long as you know to look for this particular selection bias, of course.

A nice ‘tell’ that you are in a good communication is when someone points out that they have done this kind of thinking and is willing, perhaps even eager, to share it with you; another would be someone who welcomes such observations when they are made by others and uses the new data to adapt their views when appropriate. It’s almost like people can use Grice’s Maxims aspirationally, rather than just descriptively. And I like to think they do, more often than not.

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